Fred Perris

Fred Perris was born to Thomas and Hannah Rebecca (Spiller) Perris in Gloucester, England on January 21, 1837. Fred’s father, who was much taken with the news of gold discoveries in Australia, in 1850 took his family to The Land Down Under. He dug in the gold fields, and built and sold furniture in Melbourne.
While in Melbourne, young Perris completed his schooling and ultimately received his training as a civil engineer.
In 1851 while in Australia, Fred’s mother, Rebecca was proselytized by two Mormon missionaries, Elders John Murdock and Charles Windall, and she converted to Mormonism. Mrs. Perris joined with a group of Mormon emigrants heading to the United States and in 1853, after a sea voyage, arrived in California and came directly to San Bernardino, which was then a newly founded Mormon town. Mr. Perris, who had remained in Australia, died in 1854.
While in San Bernardino, 17-year-old Fred’s first employment was as a surveyor of the “out lots” about the city, an undertaking which was key to determining the footprint of the property obtained by the Mormon settlers based upon their 1851 purchase of the San Bernardino Rancho from the Lugo family. He did this work at the behest of Ebenezer Hanks, Amassa Lyman, and Charles Rich, Mormon apostles who had been sent forth to California by Brigham Young to establish the Morman enclave in San Bernardino.
Fred’s surveying played a role in the eventual certified U. S. Government patent which settled the confusion and accompanying land disputes. While in residency at San Bernardino, Perris also found work as a deputy U. S. mineral and land surveyor along the Pacific Coast for the United States Government and the State of California.
In the Winter of 1857-58, Brigham Young, fearing that the Mormons were on the brink of war with the United States Government as led by the James Buchanan Administration, sent out a recall order, calling upon all loyal Mormons, “saints” as he referred to them, to return to Salt Lake City. The Perris family adhered to that order. Fred accompanied the leaders of the San Bernardino Mormon community back to Salt Lake City. That summer, the war threat having passed, Perris on August 30, 1858 became a naturalized United States citizen.
Following a trip from Salt Lake City, on the fourth of September, 1858, Perris embarked from New York City on the steamship Thornton for England. Upon arrival he joined his mother, Rebecca, who was involved in the settlement of her late husband’s estate which had been delayed due to litigation. Fred remained in England for over two years, during which time, at the age of 22 on May 5, 1859 he married in Cheltenham Mary Anette Edwards, then 19.
By 1861, he had returned to America with his wife and took up residence in Salt Lake City, where he operated a dry goods business and a print shop.
On October 12, 1863, Perris was appointed as a territorial surveyor by Jesse W. Fox, Utah’s territorial surveyor general. In this capacity, working primarily in the northeastern portions of the state, Perris had his first railroad-related work. By the late 1860s Fred became associated with the Union Pacific Railroad during its transcontinental building period, and worked under Samuel B. Reed, a divisional chief engineer of the Union Pacific.
In 1874, Fred accompanied an ox-team caravan heading over the famous “Mormon Trail of 1851,” all the way to San Bernardino, from which he had been absent for some 16 years. Shortly after his arrival, Perris was appointed San Bernardino County Surveyor. At a somewhat later time, he also did much land surveying in another capacity, as Deputy U. S. Mineral Surveyor. Covering ground by foot and buckboard in both of these endeavors, Perris became the most knowledgeable person of his era with regard to the lay of the land of San Bernardino County and Southern California in general.
Perris traversed the county, north to south, east to west, took measurements of all the streams, located possible reservoir sites, and gathered vital water data in San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties. Sheldon Stoddard, a San Bernardino pioneer who had crossed over the Mojave Desert and thence through the Cajon Pass in 1849, said of Fred Perris, “With him I have traveled hundreds of miles over mountains and over deserts. When he was a surveyor for San Bernardino County, I was with him when he made the county line survey, during which we traversed the desert some two hundred and fifty miles…. At one time Mr. Perris was taken very ill and we thought sure we should have to return to San Bernardino; so we rigged up a buckboard, made bows of willow limbs, stretched canvas on it for shade and made it as comfortable as possible. But he refused to allow us to take him back. Later he commenced to mend, so we just kept in camp for a few days, by which time Mr. Perris was able to continue the survey, completing the work to the state line. During our work we drove into a little valley known as Horse Spring Valley, and there we found the ground literally covered with the bones of animals. We afterward learned that this valley had been the hiding place of Indians, who drove there hundreds of stolen horses, mules and cattle, where they killed the animals and dried the meat for food. They were most active in such depredations during the fifties, but even at the time we made the survey, in 1874, as we entered the valley a band if Indians fled from the opposite side.”
In addition to contract surveying, Perris supplemented his income by engaging in a printing business in partnership with John Isaacs, later editor of the San Bernardino Times. The firm Perris & Isaacs briefly published the San Bernardino Advertiser, one of the city’s early newspapers.
Even before the completion of what was billed as the first transcontinental rail line in 1869, Congress in July of 1866 authorized a second transcontinental railroad following a southerly route from Springfield, Missouri, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and on to the San Diego area. In the early 1870s, San Bernardino had failed to lure the Southern Pacific to it.
A group of capitalists from Boston under the business name, California Southern Railroad, actively pursued the competition for the Pacific Coast during the late 1870s.
California Southern representatives, G. B. Wilbur and L. G. Pratt, met with the San Diego boosters in 1879. When citizens of San Bernardino learned of this, a meeting was held at the San Bernardino Courthouse on October 20. Isaacs and Perris were appointed by acclamation as a committee to meet the railroad men. The delegation headed to San Diego and waited five days before they could see Wilbur and Pratt, surveying not only the physical geography between San Bernardino and San Diego on the way there, but sizing up while in San Diego what has been described as “a political cauldron of opposing interests at work.”
Perris and Isaacs encountered San Diego interests doing their level best to keep them from having access to the railroad’s representatives. Nevertheless, through persistence, Perris and Isaacs at last achieved a meeting with Wilbur and Pratt at the Horton House Hotel. The meeting lasted seventeen-and one-half hours, from 8 a.m. until 1:30 a.m. Isaacs attempted to sell Wilbur and Pratt on the idea of having the new railroad line passing through San Bernardino, providing detailed social and economic information about the city. Perris used his enviable knowledge of topography and engineering to convince the Easterners that a rail route through San Bernardino was the best way for them to proceed. Wilbur and Pratt were impressed enough with what they had heard to give San Bernardino careful consideration.
“Gentlemen,” declared Wilbur, “if you will come for us in two weeks, we will go up and see your country.”
San Bernardino was lying in wait for the two Easterners when they arrived, having dressed itself up and putting on its best front. Perris then escorted one California Southern party up to the San Gorgonio Pass and then through Morongo Pass, thought to be an appropriate rail-line route by which to reach the Mojave and Needles crossings. Perris also squired them through the Cajon Pass area.
The intensive lobbying was successful and California Southern decided to route the train line’s course through San Bernardino. San Bernardino County historian L. Burr Belden credited Perris with having convinced California Southern Railroad officials to include San Bernardino as a major stop.
Perris was hired as a railroad surveyor directing the location of the line south to San Diego. Isaacs later wrote of Perris: “From that time our future was assured, although there was a time when it hung in the balance, and the question was seriously considered whether it would come to Colton, and go thence direct to Cajon Pass and leave San Bernardino two or three miles off the road, or swerve from its direct line to our city. To the efforts of Mr. Perris more than any other one man, the latter was decided upon and San Bernardino became a railroad center.”
Fred led the first surveying party, consisting of I. C. Dunlap, transitman; T.M. Parsons, levelman; William P. Cave, topographer; John Mayfield, Oscar T. Barren and Stephen Hales, chainmen; George Evans and Edwin Williamson, teamsters; James M. Burnet, stake marker; Frank B. Daley and Milfort Torrass, flag and axe man, respectively; Ah Fong, cook, in the plotting of the line in December, 1880. The route later went by way of Orange, as Temecula Canyon was abandoned after the track had been washed out by a flood the second time.
Of the arrival of the first locomotive from San Diego on September 13, 1883, Perris later said, “It was a great event. The engine was decorated and there was a crowd to welcome us in. The Santa Fe’s first station in San Bernardino was a single box car. Those were strenuous days in building railroads. The Southern Pacific held us up at Colton for eleven months and Joe Bright and Austin Chute cut the Southern Pacific rails following a condemnation suit. Big time then? I should say there was.”1
In the mid-1880s, the California Southern Railroad became part of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe System in its expansion in Southern California. From 1883 to 1900, Perris, as chief engineer, oversaw the construction of all the lines for the Santa Fe system in Southern California, supervising the laying of 264.2 miles of rail lines. He further built 210.6 miles of lines for the California Southern Railroad, including that from Barstow to San Bernardino, a span on which he collaborated with Jacob Nash. Along the way he built and equipped large shops at San Bernardino and the shops at other points on their roads. After the completion of the line, he had charge of the entire California sub-system of the Santa Fe. “The excellent condition of these roads and their equipments comprising this system, demonstrate beyond question Mr. Perris’ superior qualifications for the position he occupied and the faithful discharge of its great responsibilities. He was an active and zealous worker and thorough master of the situation,” according to The Illustrated History of Southern California, published by the Lewis Publishing Company of Chicago in 1890.
Fred’s proposal to lay the California Southern Railroad’s route through Cajon Pass had to overcome an effort to block that option made by the Southern Pacific. San Bernardino’s economic condition was benefited by his foresight and perseverance.
According to historian L. Burr Belden, Perris “outmaneuvered the opposition.” In handling the Cajon Pass right-of-way, according to Belden, “After the LA & I bankruptcy the Southern Pacific had inherited assets of that little road including what it supposed was the half-completed grade and partially dug tunnel crossed by State Route 138 In West Cajon.Perris knew of a lower pass but both he and other California Southern officials were being watched. He accordingly loaded his surveying instruments in a wagon, took along one of the California Southern backers from the east, and headed out San Gorgonio Pass, then turned up Morongo Canyon. He was followed as far as Whitewater and then the trailing party was satisfied that Santa Fe was considering a Morongo entry. Such a roundabout line seemed to pose no threats to Pacific supremacy so Perris and his companion were allowed to enter the high desert country alone.
Perris reached Warren’s Well then swung west through Old Woman Springs and Lucerne Valley to enter the eastern branch of Cajon Pass unobserved. He staked out the line for the Santa Fe subsidiary through the present summit and down the canyon thousands of feet below the useless Southern Pacific holdings. Up to that time none, except Perris, knew of the route from the Mojave River at Hesperia over the low summit to Cajon. The old wagon road had never been considered for a railroad because of the narrows in Coyote Canyon, it seems. Perris’ line avoided the little narrow canyon by passing through the badlands to its north. Its possession by the Santa Fe brought the new transcontinental line through Cajon Pass and made San Bernardino a principal railroad center instead of the terminus of a little local line.”
In accordance with the tradition of naming railroad stations for their important officials, in 1885-86 “Perris” was bestowed upon the station now in Riverside County which later became the site of the present city that bears his name.
In addition to his railroad duties, Fred Perris managed to indulge himself in family and demanding civic duties and interests. He served as a member of San Bernardino’s first board of water commissioners, a remunerative position, and he endorsed the pay warrants over to support various churches, not a dollar going for his personal use. On May 15, 1886, San Bernardino, through re-incorporation, became a city of what was called the “fifth class. Perris was among the six men, the others being J.G. Burt, Smith Haile, I.R. Brunn, John Anderson and B.B. Harris, elected to the charter San Bernardino Board of Trustees, later called the city council. Perris spearheaded the drive to obtain from Andrew Carnegie’s foundation funds for a public library. Perris persuaded Carnegie, through his contact with prominent Santa Fe officials in the East, to increase the initial gift from the sum of $15,000 to $20,000 following the completion of the first set of plans submitted.
In August 1902 a city resolution honored Perris’ work. Perris Hill in San Bernardino was named for Perris’ to commend his success int acquiring land for reservoir purposes.
According to John Brown and James Boyd, in their 1922 book, The History of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, “Mr. Perris was a pioneer of the valley and has been identified with the upbuilding of not only San Bernardino, but Southern California. Under his direction most of the lines of the Santa Fe were built and he drove the first passenger train into this city on the California Southern Railroad from Los Angeles on September 13, 1883. Mr. Perris was retired with the most liberal pension and with letters of appreciation from many high up officers including President E. P Ripley.”
Fred and Mary had three daughters and three sons. Fred and Mary Perris celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on May 5, 1909, At the age of 77 in 1914, he retired. On the morning of May 12, 1916, at the age of 80, he died at his home in San Bernardino.

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